COMMENTARY
 
Siachen Accord to Facilitate Kashmir Solution
Weekly Pulse
January 26-February 1, 2007
Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri’s October 2006 claim about Indo-Pak “breakthrough” on Siachen at the November round of foreign secretaries talks may not have proven true; but such an agreement seems to be nearing a signature—probably scheduled for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s yet to be scheduled trip to Pakistan.

On January 15, Prime Minister Singh confirmed the two countries were making “progress” on Siachen. In his words, “The two sides are among other things holding negotiations on the issue of authentication of ground position (in Siachen). There are hopeful features in the present dialogue…“It is my effort to sustain the momentum.”

The Indian Prime Minister’s statement on Siachen came only a couple of days after Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherje’s visit to Islamabad, during which the two sides attempted to overcome differences on a number of unresolved issues, including Siachen and Kashmir.

Unlike Foreign Minister Kasuri, however, the Indian Prime Minister has been a bit cautious about Siachen, by saying that it “will be premature for me to say that we have reached a stage where agreement is being signed.”

Kasuri’s Claim

Last October, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri had claimed that India and Pakistan were close to reaching an agreement to resolve Siachen issue and suggested a “breakthrough” on this was expected during the November 2006 round of foreign-secretary level talks between the two countries. He had said: “As a Foreign Minister of Pakistan, I know we are very close to an agreement. I will not go into details. It depends on political will and I hope that the Prime Minister and the (new) Foreign Minister of India will show that political will.” The last round of defense secretary-level talks on Siachen between the two countries held in May 2006 failed to yield any breakthrough. Pranab Mukherjee, then India’s Defense Minister, had termed Pakistan’s refusal not to authenticate the actual ground position line in the disputed zone as the cause. New Delhi has reportedly been insisting that there should be a proper authentication of present position held by the two countries in Siachen, if the military disengagement was to take place. Following Mr Mukherjee’s visit, Pakistan’s Foreign Office has disclosed that Islamabad has given a formal package of proposals to India, and that now it was New Delhi’s obligation to study the proposals and respond to them positively. This is where the Indo-Pak diplomacy on Siachen, as part of the Composite Dialogue’ process stand now. The defense secretaries of the two countries may have a meeting in the meantime to sort out the remaining differences, and as stated before, an agreement on Siachen may be concluded during a visit to Pakistan by the Indian Prime Minister. It is important to mention the history of Siachen dispute, especially how it is essentially linked to Kashmir. Since the latter dispute is much older and broader, it is difficult to solve as well. India has been as rigid on Siachen as on Kashmir, but given the relatively lesser political value of the former, a peace process on it has a greater chance of success than is the case with Kashmir. Siachen is easier to resolve because an agreement on it already exists. More importantly, Siachen Glacier is an essential, and not so distant, outgrowth of the Kashmir dispute. Solving the bi-product of Kashmir should be the best catalyst for a viable solution to it.

Siachen’s History

The nearly twenty-year conflict has caused hundreds of casualties, mainly due to adverse climatic conditions and harsh terrain. The economic cost of sustaining a conflict in this geographically remote and climatically inhospitable region is also enormous for both countries. However, being on height, India suffers far more troops casualties and economic losses than Pakistan.

Ironically, the Siachen dispute was initiated by India itself, after its forces, in a surprise operation in April 1984, captured the Siachen glacier and its approaches in the eastern Karakoram mountain range, adjacent to the borders of India, Pakistan, and China. Since then, in the ensuing conflict, despite suffering heavy losses in men and material, India has shown little flexibility in amicably resolving the Siachen dispute with Pakistan. New Delhi has even reneged on an agreement it had signed with Islamabad in June 1989 on troops withdrawal and re-deployment from the Siachen glacier and its adjoining areas.

The Siachen glacier is one of the most inhospitable regions in the world. Owing to its freezing climate, it is termed as the “Third Pole.” Sliding down a valley in the Karakoram range, the glacier is 76 kilometers long and varies in width between 2 to 8 kilometers. It receives 6 to 7 meters of the annual total of 10 meters of snow in winter alone. The temperature drops routinely to 40 degrees Centigrade below zero. The high altitude severely compounds the biter climatic conditions. Base Camp for Indian forces is 12,000 feet above sea level.

These adverse conditions have direct consequences, as most casualties are not due to combat but because of the hostile altitude, weather, and terrain.

Cause of Conflict The root-cause of the Siachen dispute lies in the origin of the Kashmir dispute itself. The areas of the disputed state that fell under Pakistan are called Azad Jammu and Kashmir. As for the Northern Areas, they were never as such under the direct jurisdiction of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in undivided India.

The Siachen glacier and its approaches fall within the Pakistani-administered Northern Areas’ Baltistan region. India controls two-third of the disputed territory, including Jammu state, Ladakh, and the valley of Kashmir. The Karachi agreement, signed by Pakistan and India at the end of their 1947 war, demarcated the Cease-fire Line.

The Cease-fire Line ran along the international Pakistan-India border and then north and northeast until map grid-point NJ 9842, located near the Shyok river near the southern end of the Siachen glacier. Because no Indian or Pakistani troops were present in the geographically inhospitable northeastern areas beyond NJ 9842, the Cease-fire Line was not delineated as far as the Chinese border. Both sides agreed, in the vague language that lies at the root of the Siachen dispute, that the Cease-fire Line, now called the Line of Control, extends to the terminal point, NJ 9842, and “thence north to the glaciers.”

The vagueness was not corrected by either of the two subsequent wars, which Pakistan and India fought against each other. The Line of Control was merely described as moving from Nerlin (inclusive to India), Brilman (inclusive to Pakistan), up to Chorbat La in the Turtok sector. “From there the line of control runs northeastwards to Thang (inclusive to India) thence eastwards joining the glaciers.”

Since the Siachen glacier region falls within the un-delineated territory beyond the last defined section of the Line of Control, map grid-point NJ 9842, Indian and Pakistani territorial claims are based on their interpretations of the vague language contained in the 1949 and 1972 agreements.

Counter-Claims

Pakistan draws a straight line in a northeasterly direction from NJ 9842 up to the Karakoram pass on its boundary with China. India instead draws a north-northwest line from NJ 9842 along the watershed line of the Saltoro range, a southern offshoot of the Karakoram range.

New Delhi claims that the glacier lies within the jurisdiction of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state and is, therefore, an integral part of India. Pakistan, on the other hand, says that the glacier lies within the Pakistani-administered sector of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir—called the Federally-Administered Northern Areas—and that, pending final resolution of its status through an internationally-supervised plebiscite in that territory, it must, therefore, be restored to Pakistan’s control.

In 1983 the Indians lifted an entire mountain battalion by helicopter onto the eastern side of the Siachen glacier. A series of permanent military posts were constructed there in April 1984. That same year Indian forces deployed forward, digging in atop the glacier, commanding its highest points and most important features. This gave the Indians an important tactical advantage, but made the task of supplying them extremely arduous and hazardous. As for Pakistan, it did not establish any permanent posts in the region due to its inhospitable terrain and harsh climatic conditions. In fact, President General Ziaul-Haq, while dispelling the notion of Siachen’s strategic importance, had once described the glacier and its surrounding areas as barren wasteland, where “even grass does not grow.”

Pakistan was willing to accept the territory as no man's-land until India deployed its forces in the Siachen area in 1984, which violated the spirit of both the Karachi agreement and Simla agreement.

Prelude to Agreement

It was in January 1986 that high-level talks between Pakistani and Indian defense and foreign secretaries as well as senior military personnel first began to find a peaceful end to the Siachen dispute. The cumbersome peace process, finally after over three years of negotiations, produced a breakthrough in June 1989 during the fifth round of talks between the two countries’ defense secretaries in Islamabad.

According to the joint statement issued on June 17 at the conclusion of talks, “There was agreement by both sides to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chances of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area. The army authorities of both sides will determine these positions.”

The next day, separate talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries concluded. At a joint press conference, Pakistan’s foreign secretary Dr Humayun Khan, referring to the defense secretaries’ meeting, called it a “significant advance” and spoke of a joint statement to relocate “forces to positions occupied at the time of the Simla agreement.” He went on to say: “The exact location of these positions will be worked out in detail by military authorities of the two countries.”

Indian foreign secretary S K Singh said, “I would like to thank the foreign secretary, Dr Humayun Khan, and endorse everything he has said.” Surprisingly, the very next day, spokesman of the Indian External Ministry denied India had signed any agreement on troops withdrawal from Siachen: “There was no indication of any such agreement in the joint press statement issued at the end of talks.”

Neither during prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Islamabad in July 1989, nor during two round of talks between the military officials of the two countries in July and August 1989, was any agreement on Siachen signed between Pakistan and India, with both sides sticking to their respective grounds.

After the Agreement

Before the June 1989 agreement, the Indian side was demanding that Pakistan ceased its “cartographic aggression”; that is, its unilateral attempt to extend the Line of Control from the agreed terminus at map reference point NJ 9842 to the Karokoram Pass on the border with China.

The Pakistani side, on the other hand, insisted that the deployment of Indian and Pakistani forces should be in mutually agreed positions that were held at the time of the ceasefire in 1971 (i.e., pre-Simla positions) and only then “delimitation” of an extension of the Line of Control beyond the map reference point NJ 9842.

Throughout the 1990s, no particular progress was made on Siachen. Under the current ‘Composite Dialogue’ process, Pakistan has thus far asked India to withdraw its troops from the glacier to the 1972 positions, but India, having control over it, has appeared unlikely to yield. However, both sides have indeed considered steps to strengthen the ceasefire along the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the glacier.

Prospects of Settlement

In the third round of defence secretaries talks in May last year, the two sides discussed a proposal for troop withdrawal from the glacier. India reiterated that the present troop positions should first be marked on a map and on the ground as evidence in case the area is reoccupied after a deal. Pakistan continued to oppose the marking, saying it would legitimize Indian occupation of the strategic glacier in 1984.

In the last three rounds of such negotiations, the two sides have mainly focused on technical discussions on the steps that might precede demilitarization; however, any understanding is yet to be reached. The old controversy over where the real border exists in the Siachen sector has assumed new shapes. Negotiations on Siachen have focused on discussing modalities for disengagement and redeployment of troops.

Pakistan and India need to undertake a full withdrawal of their troops to the agreed points, in the spirit of the Simla agreement of 1972, without any attempt to legitimize post-1972 military advances by either side. Being an aggressor, India has to take the lead in this respect. Pakistan would surely follow suit.

The Simla agreement had specified that “neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations. Both sides further should undertake to refrain from the threat or the use of force in violation of this line.”

By insisting on the Indian troops withdrawal from the glacier and its adjoining approaches to pre-Simla-positions, Pakistan wants the region to revert to its no-man’s land status, which existed prior to the Indian aggression and occupation.